Cablegate: Minority Hill Tribes Still Plagued by Statelessness, Though

DE RUEHCHI #0192/01 3540939
P 190939Z DEC 08



E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: CHIANG MAI 127 (Citizenship Hardships)

CHIANG MAI 00000192 001.2 OF 006

Summary and Comment

1. Roughly half of Thailand's estimated 900,000 hill tribe
minorities lack citizenship. This statelessness contributes
significantly to their disadvantaged status. In recent years
the Royal Thai Government (RTG) has made strides to improve
citizenship eligibility for highlanders, including passing two
significant new laws in 2008. Nonetheless, the onus is still on
hill tribe people to produce proof of birth, residency, and/or
nationality, via a process that is legally and bureaucratically
complex, and fraught with corruption and discrimination. The
RTG, UN agencies and NGOs are working together to overcome these
obstacles and build on recent momentum. However, funding
resources are limited for all of these actors. Post will
continue its outreach on hill tribe citizenship issues, with the
aim of identifying effective ways the USG could contribute via
means such as Democracy Small Grants and public diplomacy

2. Comment: On hill tribe statelessness, Thailand's glass is
roughly half full and half empty. Yet it is fuller than a
decade ago and slowly continues to fill. A major dilemma for
the RTG, however, is the growing number of highland minorities
migrating from Burma in recent years - and the accompanying
concern that liberalization of citizenship laws to benefit
resident hill tribes could become a beacon attracting new
migrants from Burma. End Summary and Comment.

The Hills Have Tribes

3. Thailand's "hill tribes" are ethno-linguistic minority
groups living primarily in remote small villages dotted
throughout the country's northern and western highlands. Most
originated in Tibet and southern China, and have migrated to
Thailand via Burma and Laos within the past 150 years.
However, some hill tribe migration continues to this day due to
political strife in eastern Burma (see para 24). As a result of
the mobility and remoteness of the lifestyle, it is difficult to
determine a precise figure for Thailand's hill tribe population.
In fact, the population figure varies between different Thai
agencies. The best consensus figure post has been able to
determine is just under 900,000, about 1.4% of the country's
total population. Of this hill tribe populace, nearly 70% is
concentrated in the northern provinces of Chiang Mai, Chiang
Rai, and Nan.

4. The extent to which Thailand's hill tribes, or
"highlanders," live a disadvantaged and marginalized life has
been widely documented by the State Department, UN agencies,
NGOs and scholars. There is broad consensus that lack of
citizenship among a large portion of highlanders - roughly half,
by most estimates - is the single greatest factor contributing
to their disadvantaged status. This cable will focus on
statelessness among Thailand's hill tribes by:

-- tracing the legal and political background and current state
of play;

-- identifying obstacles highlanders face in obtaining

-- summarizing the societal disadvantages faced by stateless
persons; and

-- looking ahead to efforts by the RTG, NGOs, and international
community aimed at addressing the problem of hill tribe

A Growing Identity

5. Before the 1950s, the Thai government largely overlooked the
presence of highland people in the country's remote mountainous
regions. The hill tribes were not included in the first
national census in 1956. But political upheavals that decade in
China, Laos and Burma resulted in an influx of migrants to the
hills of northern Thailand. By 1959, the RTG set up a national
committee to deal with development for hill tribe people, then
seen largely as a national security threat involving guerilla
movements, opium production, and deforestation.

6. According to UNESCO, the RTG conducted its first census of
the highland population in 1969-70; it identified 120,000 hill

CHIANG MAI 00000192 002.2 OF 006

tribe people. A second, more comprehensive census followed in
1985; it recorded 580,000 highlanders. Following this survey,
the government began issuing household registration certificates
along with a highland (non-citizen) identity card. By the early
1990s, the Interior Ministry had issued highland identity cards
to nearly 250,000 hill tribe people, and conferred Thai
citizenship on another 182,000.

7. In 1999, the RTG conducted its most comprehensive highland
population survey to date. This survey recorded a total hill
tribe population of nearly 874,000 people, of whom over 496,000
were already registered as Thai citizens. The remaining 378,000
highlanders were placed in various categories such as "eligible
for Thai citizenship," "eligible for permanent residency," or
undetermined. Of these 378,000 non-citizens, post understands
that a number of them have since received citizenship, but
neither government nor NGO sources have been able to provide a
precise figure. To date, no complete census data tracks the
number of hill tribe residents or their citizenship status.

RTG Takes Positive Steps . . .

8. In the years since the 1999 survey, the RTG has taken steps
to improve citizenship eligibility for highlanders, including
passing two significant new laws in 2008. Generally, each step
has addressed a different sub-set of the total non-citizen
population, or a specific portion of the overall process, rather
than offering a comprehensive solution. Yet taken together, the
trend is encouraging, though the onus still lies with the
applicant to produce proof of residency, nationality, and/or
birth, which can be highly problematic as described in paras

9. The first positive step was the RTG's August 2000
declaration that all children born in Thailand of hill tribe
parents who entered Thailand before October 4, 1985 were
eligible for citizenship regardless of their parents' legal
status at the time they were born. The parents themselves
(about 60,000 persons per RTG figures) were declared eligible
for legal migrant status. The main beneficiaries of this
decision were ethnic minorities from Burma, including hill tribe
groups as well as the non-hill tribe Shan, who had fled into
Thailand in the 1970s and 1980s.

10. In 2001 the RTG established an independent National Human
Rights Commission; its subcommittee on ethnic minorities has
been active in calling for full citizenship rights for all those
born in Thailand. In 2005 the government designated the
Interior Ministry and National Security Council as the lead
agencies on citizenship matters, and tasked them with:
surveying the highland population; developing an approach that
would that would give stateless persons some form of legal
status immediately pending a final determination; decentralizing
citizenship authorization; and including NGOs and academics in
the decision-making process.

11. The latest positive step was Thailand's adoption of the
Nationality Act of 2008 and the Civil Registration Act of 2008,
both of which superseded earlier laws. Their full impact has
yet to be assessed since the Interior Ministry has yet to issue
complete implementing regulations.

12. The Nationality Act of 2008 has four significant aspects;

-- stipulates that children born in Thailand before February
26,1992 to parents who entered Thailand illegally AFTER October
4, 1985 are eligible to apply for Thai citizenship. This
broadens the RTG's August 2000 declaration noted in para nine.
The fate of children born in Thailand after February 1992 to
illegal alien parents is less clear, however. The new law
permits them to remain in Thailand (i.e., not treated as
illegals), with an opportunity to "develop their legal personal
status as circumstances permit."

-- repeals a 1972 decree that revoked the citizenship of a
large number of highlanders on national security grounds
involving drug-trafficking, deforestation, and communist
insurgency. For those whose citizenship was revoked, as well as
their children who were consequently rendered ineligible for
citizenship, the new law reinstates their citizenship. RTG and
NGO sources report that over 6,000 highlanders have already
obtained citizenship in this manner, with NGOs saying the number
could approach 100,000 once implementation is in full swing.

-- allows stateless persons who unwittingly waived their right
to claim Thai citizenship to reclaim their eligibility. In the

CHIANG MAI 00000192 003.2 OF 006

previous decade, many stateless highlanders who were born in
Thailand and may have been able to prove citizenship eligibility
substantially weakened their claim to citizenship by registering
as "migrant workers." They did so in order to order to gain
coverage under the government's 30-baht universal health care
program, which is otherwise unavailable to stateless persons.

-- grants citizenship eligibility to previously ineligible
individuals : children born in Thailand to a Thai father and
alien mother; children born out of wedlock to a Thai mother; and
alien husbands of Thai wives who wish to naturalize.

13. The 2008 Civil Registration Act is significant for
stipulating that every child born in Thailand will receive an
official birth certificate, regardless of the parents' status,
beginning from the law's entry into force on August 23, 2008.
Similarly, local registrars shall issue a household registration
for all persons domiciled in Thailand regardless of nationality.
These documents are important for citizenship applicants to
navigate the complicated legal regime described in para 15.

. . . But Old Habits Die Hard

14. Despite these positive steps, obstacles to obtaining
citizenship remain for several hundred thousand hill tribe
people. UNESCO notes that, whereas in China, Laos and Vietnam
ethnic minorities are born citizens of those countries, in
Thailand citizenship for highlanders is an acquired status.
Moreover, such status may be obtained only through a process
that is still legally and bureaucratically complex, and fraught
with corruption and discrimination.

15. In June 2007, the Vital Voices Global Partnership issued a
report on the relationship between the lack of citizenship and
human trafficking in Thailand, and the challenges of obtaining
proof of citizenship (see 0Voices%20-%20
Stateless%20and%20Vulnerable%20to%20Human%20T rafficking%20in%20Th
ailand.pdf). The report provides useful detail on the various
obstacles faced by the hill tribes in obtaining Thai
citizenship, including:

-- A complicated legal regime. On the one hand, a child born
to a Thai citizen or alien permanent resident can become a
citizen. On the other hand, eligibility for citizenship by
birth does not automatically translate into proof of
citizenship. Proof must be presented to the appropriate local
officials for verification, which is no easy task given legal
complexities. Parents of a newborn must first obtain a delivery
certificate, and then notify the birth to the district registrar
within 15 days. Only after these two steps are completed may
the registrar then issue a birth registration certificate - and
then only to children of citizens or legal permanent residents.
In the absence of a required document, a witness's testimony is
needed. In the case of children without proof of birth
certificate or witness, a DNA test is required. Obtaining
citizenship by naturalization is also complex and rigorous; it
includes a five-year domicile requirement, approval by the
Interior Minister, and royal sanction by the King.

-- Practical problems of data, communication, and
transportation. The 2007 Vital Voices report (VV report)
describes how incomplete, contradictory census data, as well as
inconsistent decisions by officials regarding status and
identification of individuals, has hindered obtaining
citizenship for many highlanders. Another obstacle is the
language barrier between Thai officials and non-Thai speaking
hill tribe people, which contributes to census and registration
errors. Also, lack of transportation to and from remote
highland areas prevents many newborns from obtaining either the
delivery certificate or the birth notification required for the
birth registration certificate - without which citizenship
cannot be obtained.

-- Corruption by local officials is another obstacle hill
tribes face in obtaining Thai citizenship. As the VV report
notes, the fact that citizenship applications must go through
local officials gives them absolute authority and has made
corruption rife at the village, sub-district, and district
levels. This assertion was supported by recent conversations we
had with two Amcits who are long-time residents of northern
Thailand (Chiang Rai) and active in hill tribe development
efforts. They said most highlanders lack birth certificates and
must rely on their village and/or district head to certify their
birth and eligibility for citizenship. Many of these officials
are corrupt and demand bribes of 500 to 2,000 baht (USD 15 to
60) to certify birth and/or residency. Staff at a Chiang Mai

CHIANG MAI 00000192 004.2 OF 006

shelter for young hill tribe women cited even higher bribe
amounts (5,000 to 15,000 baht, or USD 150 to 450) charged by
village and sub-district heads for services that are supposed to
be free, such as official signatures, house registration,
fingerprinting and id photos, and citizenship card issuance. A
UN agency source cautions of district officials who feign
ignorance of the process, withhold information, or omit dates on
received applications in attempts to extort bribe payments.

16. Our Chiang Rai sources claimed many village heads do not
want highlanders in their area to get citizenship, because then
they lose "control" of them. Village heads can make money off
"their" stateless hill tribe people via trafficking their labor
into illegal logging, drug-running, or the sex trade. As a
result, many village heads equate citizenship with "losing their
assets" (Note: our contacts were unable to quantify the extent
of this practice). Moreover, some officials use the prospect of
citizenship as a tool to manipulate stateless highlanders'
behavior. For instance, local officials have in some cases
withheld citizenship from an entire village as a means to force
its residents to give up the drug trade. The unfortunate result
is that an entire village can have its citizenship withheld even
if just a few of its members engage in drug trafficking. The
means for doing so can be subtle, e.g. bureaucratic
foot-dragging or questioning the bona fides of birth witnesses.

17. Our Chiang Rai sources, and the VV report, described
several other obstacles to obtaining citizenship:

-- AIDS. Many hill tribe children are AIDS orphans, whose
parents died when AIDS peaked in Thailand a decade ago. This
complicates the process of documenting birth records and
citizenship eligibility.

-- Cautious officials. Local officials tend to be
risk-averse, and hesitate to accept citizenship applications for
fear of harsh career penalties for any mistake in granting an
incorrect status. Moreover, a UN agency source claims there is
a history of reprisals by officials against individuals who come
forward publicly to report shortcomings in the registration

-- Lack of knowledge. The complexities of both the legal
regime and the application process means that responsible
officials often lack understanding of their obligations, and
highlanders (many of whom do not speak or read Thai) often lack
knowledge of their citizenship rights.

-- Complex appeals process. If the district official rejects a
citizenship application, few appellate options exist. The
complicated process is outlined in the VV report, which
concludes that the appeals process is fraught with obstacles,
including: lack of knowledge of the right to appeal, complexity
of the process, a one-month statute of limitations, broad
discretion for government officials, and the money and time
required to undertake an appeal.

-- Too many cooks? Another complexity, though not directly
related to the citizenship issue, is the sheer number of
government entities with a role in hill tribe issues. According
to a 2002 study by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization,
Thailand has 11 government ministries involved in hill area
development, which in turn have 31 departments and 168 agencies
with either a mandate or a commitment to support hill tribe

--------------------------------------------- -----------
How Statelessness Marginalizes Highlanders
--------------------------------------------- -----------

18. Thailand's hill tribes live a marginalized life to begin
with given their agrarian lifestyle, remote location, and low
education level. That several hundred thousand highlanders lack
Thai citizenship significantly exacerbates their disadvantaged
status. According to UNESCO, lack of citizenship or legal
status is the single greatest risk factor for hill tribe people
to be trafficked or otherwise exploited. Without legal status,
they are considered "illegal aliens" in their own country,
subject to arrest, deportation, and extortion. Highlanders who
lack citizenship cannot vote, hold office, organize into unions,
or own/obtain title to land, and have difficulty accessing
credit from banks. Stateless highlanders are also barred from
state welfare services such as universal health care (the
30-baht plan). They are geographically restricted to living and
working in certain areas, usually their immediate home district.
This confines them to the meager opportunities for work in the
locality, unless special permission is granted by the district
head. As a result, they are often employed in informal labor
arrangements that are highly exploitative. And because of the

CHIANG MAI 00000192 005.2 OF 006

travel restrictions, the further they travel away from their
communities, the more vulnerable they become to shakedowns by
corrupt police who use their lack of travel passes as a pretext
for extortion.

19. Our Amcit Chiang Rai contacts elaborated on these
disadvantages. Stateless highlanders not only cannot leave
their province of residence, but also cannot get drivers
licenses, even for motorcycles. This is problematic for getting
to school or a job site. Non-citizen highlanders try to get
around this by having the vehicle purchase issued under the name
of a Thai acquaintance, which often requires an under-the-table

20. Lack of citizenship blocks access to most private sector
jobs, our contacts noted, since private businesses that employ
non-citizens or unregistered migrants are subject to penalties
for harboring illegals. Nor are stateless highlanders eligible
for Civil Service jobs, and thus cannot enter the local
bureaucracy to serve their own people. They also cannot serve
in the Thai military. Ironically, this makes them ineligible
for many other types of jobs because they can produce neither a
document showing they have completed their mandatory year of
military service, nor a document showing they are legally
exempted from such service.

21. Statelessness also hinders educational advancement. On the
positive side, undocumented hill tribe children are no longer
barred from public schools; a compulsory education law mandates
attendance through age 15 for all. Without citizenship,
however, they do not receive an official diploma upon
graduation, and are thus mostly blocked from higher education
and restricted in employment options. Staff at a Chiang Mai
shelter for young hill tribe women spoke of one star student who
completed secondary school but then hit a dead-end in her job
search; she gave up and returned to her village. Our Chiang Rai
contacts told us of a stateless hill triber who completed all
required coursework for a PhD at Chiang Mai University, but was
not awarded a degree due to lack of citizenship.

22. Despite improved access to public schools, enrollment among
hill tribe students remains low, and declines with age. In
2006, UNESCO conducted a Highland Peoples Survey of the impact
of statelessness by polling 12,000 households in nearly 200
border villages in three northern provinces (Chiang Mai, Chiang
Rai, Mae Hong Son). Of the almost 64,000 individuals surveyed,
38% had no Thai citizenship and 54% had no official birth
registration. The survey found that for every 100 non-citizens,
only 22 would enter lower primary school, and only eight would
advance to upper primary. The drop-off continued at higher
levels: only five would enter lower secondary, three would
enter upper secondary, and fewer than two would pursue higher

23. With these disadvantages stacked against them, our Chiang
Rai sources conclude, many stateless highlanders are relegated
to a permanent life in the underclass - mostly on the fringes of
rural society, and some who migrate to cities and get involved
in the drug trade, sex trade, illegal labor, and petty crime.
Yet many manage to struggle through to the fringes of "normal"
life. They find or form networks of supporters, and devise ways
to commute into cities for work or school while avoiding fines
for violating movement or licensing restrictions.

--------------------------------------------- --
Continuous Influx Presents Dilemmas
--------------------------------------------- --

24. A major dilemma for Thailand is the continuing inflow of
hill tribe migrants. Former Senator Tuenjai Deetes, who heads
the Hill Area Development Foundation (HADF) in Chiang Rai,
expressed concern to us about the increasing number of
highlanders migrating from Burma in the last five years (as well
as the non-hill tribe Shan). This recent influx has created
overcrowding in hill tribe areas, forcing many
longer-established highlanders to sell their land and migrate
into cities. Overpopulation of highland villages outstrips the
village headman's ability to administer effectively, and also
fosters corruption - the headman can demand bribes in order to
permit new migrants to stay and receive services.

25. Deetes pointed out another RTG dilemma: liberalization of
citizenship laws to benefit resident highlanders could become a
beacon to attract new migrants from Burma. Also, the RTG is
wary of automatically granting citizenship to all who are born
in Thailand, because new migrants keep flocking in and having

--------------------------------------------- --------------

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To Do List for RTG, NGOs, International Community
--------------------------------------------- --------------

26. On balance, the RTG has made reasonably good progress in
the last 25 years in increasing the number of hill tribe people
holding citizenship, despite the significant obstacles still
standing in the way. The 2008 Nationality Act and Civil
Registration Act, if implemented effectively, will generate
further progress. UN agencies and the numerous NGOs actively
promoting hill tribe citizenship aim to build on this momentum
and have identified several follow-up steps for doing so:

-- Both highlanders and responsible officials need to be better
informed about their rights and obligations under a citizenship
regime that is legally and administratively complex. UNICEF and
the Interior Ministry are planning a national workshop with NGOs
to explain the new laws and their implementation to local
officials and highlander community groups. The VV report makes
similar recommendations, urging the international community to
provide funding to the RTG and NGOs to support public awareness
campaigns and training of local officials (as well as hospital
staff and midwives) regarding the birth registration and
citizenship process. Better awareness and training would
empower community leaders, NGOs, and state agencies to assist
applicants in applying for citizenship. As former Senator
Deetes told us, all parties need to understand that registration
and/or citizenship is a right, and should not be subject to
bribe payments. Her organization, as well as UNESCO, is each
doing radio outreach in minority languages on the new 2008 laws.

-- A data base of persons and linkage of data for verification
purposes would significantly help in identifying eligible
applicants for citizenship. An updated survey of undocumented
highlanders is also needed. Chiang Mai's Payap University has
had success with a pilot "People's Data Base" in select (albeit
small) areas to record information on stateless persons. UNESCO
will soon embark on an update of its 2006 Highland Peoples
Survey, this time expanding it to five provinces from three.

-- Greater manpower and expertise is needed in hill tribe areas
to process citizenship claims. UNICEF reports that the Interior
Ministry's Department of Provincial Administration seeks to
develop a cadre of civil registration volunteers. Under the
supervision of the district registrar, one volunteer in each
village would be trained as a community liaison to ensure birth
registration requirements are followed correctly. Also, Payap
University's Law Faculty recently launched a new course on
citizenship issues for 50 students, who will deploy to hill
tribe villages to "train the trainers" on legal and procedural
matters. The VV report recommends the RTG create mobile units
to register births in remote areas.

-- UN agencies and NGOs are urging the RTG to transfer birth
registration responsibilities from the Interior Ministry to the
Public Health Ministry, given the latter's success in outreach
to highlanders to persuade them to give birth in public
facilities. The two ministries reportedly agree with this in
principle and have discussed pilot testing in select provinces,
but are concerned about human resource constraints at the Health

-- UNESCO and UNICEF have recently developed a Citizenship
Manual that will soon be available on line. The manual is
intended to be a standardized "how to" guide for citizenship
applications among hill tribe communities. (Note: Post expects
to receive a CD version of the English translation by year's
end). Similarly, the Interior Ministry is reportedly developing
campaign leaflets explaining the 2008 laws and compiling
citizenship laws for district registrars. In both cases, the
aim is to standardize information across government and civil
society on registration and citizenship procedures.

-- NGOs are calling for legislation to ease the naturalization
process for legal resident aliens and give them the same rights
as natural-born citizens.

27. The multiple, mostly coordinated efforts by the RTG, UN
agencies, NGOs, and international community to improve
citizenship prospects for eligible highlanders are encouraging.
Significant obstacles remain, however, and funding resources are
limited for all of the actors. Post will continue its outreach
to these actors, with the aim of identifying effective ways for
the USG to contribute via a variety of means at our disposal,
including Democracy Small Grants as well as public diplomacy

28. This cable was coordinated with Embassy Bangkok.

© Scoop Media

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